Where better to start a tradition of honoring fallen soldiers than the place where the war that prompted it began? Shortly after the Union capture of Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, Lowcountry residents held the first "Decoration Day" to honor those who had lost their lives in the Civil War. More than a century later, Congress would finally declare Memorial Day a national holiday.
Martyrs of the Race Course
In the final year of the Civil War, the Confederates turned the interior of a Charleston horse racing track into a prison for Union soldiers. Sadly, more than 250 of the prisoners died there and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. After the war, formerly enslaved workmen reburied the men properly and constructed a high fence around the new cemetery. To honor these "Martyrs of the Race Course," 10,000 men, women, and children of all races staged a parade around the site on May 1, 1865. Following songs, prayers, and scripture readings, participants reverently placed flowers on the graves of the fallen soldiers. Three years later, the commander of a national veteran's organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, officially sanctioned Decoration Day as a time to honor both the Union and Confederate casualties of the War Between the States.
A New National Cemetery
Prior to his own assassination, President Abraham Lincoln had set aside 29 acres of land on a former Beaufort, South Carolina plantation to become a national cemetery for those who perished in the war. Purchased by the U.S. government for $75 in a 1863 federal tax sale, the new Beaufort National Cemetery became the resting place for the Union war dead on Hilton Head (who had primarily died during the Battle of Port Royal) and surrounding islands, as well as for those initially buried in Charleston, Savannah, and eastern Florida. Although most of those early burials were Union soldiers, including 1,700 African-American veterans, 177 Confederate soldiers were also buried there. In time, the site would encompass 33 acres and include interments of veterans of every major American conflict.
Sea Island Celebrations
With the establishment of the Lowcountry's own national cemetery, the area's Gullah residents began making an annual pilgrimage to Beaufort each May to pay homage to their war dead by decorating the graves of Civil War veterans. Also considered a celebration of their deliverance from slavery, these ceremonies included parades, marches by military organizations, and speakers--much like that first Charleston event. Travelers from Hilton Head and Dawfuskie Islands would leave by boat the night before to ensure their arrival in Beaufort by the morning of May 30, which had become the standard date for Decoration Day. As the years passed, steamboats from Savannah began stopping at the various Sea Islands to pick up celebrants, a band onboard setting a festive mood. Once in Beaufort, visitors would find riverside vendors selling hot dogs, cakes, deviled crabs, and other treats. After decorating graves in the cemetery, folks would toss flowers into the river itself in memory of their fallen loved ones before embarking for the trip back home.
More than two dozen cities claim to be the birthplace of the original Decoration Day, although none can provide proof that theirs predates Charleston's 1865 celebration. Despite that fact, in 1966 Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the "birthplace" of Memorial Day based on its 1866 ceremony. In 1971, the last Monday in May officially became a federal holiday known as "Memorial Day." The occasion is still honored each year at the Beaufort National Cemetery, including a parade (see photo above) and program involving Lowcountry residents of all races who come to remember those who so honorably gave their lives for their country.